When Stanley Kubrick lived near Cambridge (or so the story goes), he apparently used to pay English Literature undergraduates to send him summaries of novels so that he could mine for material to be adapted for his movies. His classic films are all based on diverse, and generally superb, works of literature: Lolita; Traumnovelle (which became Eyes Wide Shut); Barry Lyndon; A Clockwork Orange; The Shining….It’d be fascinating to know whether he ever came across A Spectre of Alexander Wolf, as it feels very much like the sort of story he would have turned into a cult classic.
The story begins during the Russian Civil War, with an exhausted sixteen year old narrator who has accidentally been separated from his unit in the Steppe. The boy stumbles across a black mare whose owner has been killed: he has not slept for thirty hours, and is desperately tired. Suddenly, as he is riding along a deserted road, the animal is shot and tumbles to the earth, and the boy hears “the dry sobbing of hooves against the cracked earth.” A second rider appears on a magnificent white horse, and takes aim at the narrator with his rifle. The boy fires his own weapon in instinctive self-defence, and, he believes, kills the soldier. Seizing the white horse he speeds away when he hears the sound of approaching riders, tortured by the idea that he has now become a murderer.
Many years later when he is living in Paris, the narrator stumbles across a novel written by a man called Alexander Wolf, which contains a chapter called “The Adventure in the Steppe”. Eerily, the chapter tells the story of a soldier shot during the Russian civil war in precisely the same circumstances as those experienced by the narrator when he was sixteen. Evidently his victim did not die, and the narrator becomes obsessed by the idea of finding Wolf – the man he still feels as though he murdered. What follows is a terse, unique psychological thriller – at times reminiscent of the Freudian Traumnovelle, whilst also having something of the cool, deadly film noir about it – and as he unfurls the tightly-coiled plot, Gazdanov also finds time to explore the complex interplay of love, death, guilt, and fate.
It is an addictive, dense little volume, and takes on some enormous questions with deft flair and intelligence. Can we ever really avoid our fate? Is life only truly appreciated in the face of death? Is it possible to live with profound guilt and still be happy? Can our physical and mental worlds ever exist in harmony? What does it mean to be in love?
I mention Traumnovelle not just because of the Kubrick idea, but also because there is something unreal – spectral – about every character in the story. The narrator’s lover makes every movement with languid delay; one man is a morphine addict; and the narrator constantly feels as though he is living in some kind of nightmarish fantasy.
I was still unable to rid myself of the impression that this evening stroll had been a patent fantasy, as though in the habitual quiet of my imagination I had been walking around a strange, unfamiliar city, alongside the spectre haunting this long, uninterrupted dream.
There is even a vague suggestion that he and Wolf are one person, or at least Uncanny Freudian doubles in some way – split by that moment when the narrator pulled the trigger: “In other words, the fate of Alexander Wolf interested me because I too, had suffered my whole life from an extraordinarily persistent and indomitable case of split personality, one that I had tried to fight and that had poisoned my happiest hours.”
This hyper-thoughtful prose very deliberately places the physical and psychological at odds with one another – which I would say is one of the novel’s most self-consciously effective flourishes. His mysterious lover “existed independently of her surroundings”; as if her physical and inner lives were somehow disconnected. The narrator talks about being compelled to pursue her in such a way as to render the external circumstances of his life powerless – he talks about the “whole silent melody of skin and muscle” as he hands her into the taxi, a tangibility which exists independently of the fated impulse which forces him to call on her a few days later. Again, it’s dreamlike – bodies moving sluggishly to a rhythm at odds with the intention of the minds controlling them. Limbs and intelligence living in contradiction, but both ultimately controlled by fate: on one level this is how the novel itself operates – beautifully articulated musings on life’s contradictions interspersed with vivid, sensuous descriptions of the world the narrator lives in:
Whenever I opened the window for a moment to flick the ash off my cigarette, the intense patter of raindrops falling on leaves would bore into my ears; there was the smell of earth and damp tree trunks.
Living life versus thinking about what it means to be alive – the two threads are balanced so brilliantly (and perhaps with a touch of the split personality the narrator believes he suffers from) that this operates both as a gripping page turner, and a truly thought-provoking meditation on what it is to be human, and mortal. In a literal sense, it means you experience the kind of physical discombobulation assigned to the characters – wanting to zip through the pages to find out what will happen next, whilst also needing to stop to chew over what’s being said. What a stylish book, beautifully published by Pushkin.
(I should also note that I was prompted to read this novel by an excellent review on Tales from the Reading Room! https://litlove.wordpress.com/2015/08/18/back-to-life/)